KEITH PRICE WAS READY TO PACK IT IN, TO BLOW OFF THE SECOND HALF OF HIS BIGGEST college audition yet—a one-day passing camp at UCLA the summer after his junior year at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif. After a demotion to the ninth-grade group, Price was prepared to yield to the opinions of the talent evaluators in Division I who considered him too lithe at (barely) 6' 1" and 176 pounds to last as a quarterback. He was about to throw in the towel until another camper and one of his best friends, Will Shamburger, bull-rushed him.
"He told me he'd never talk to me again if I gave up that easily," recalls Price, now entering his second year as Washington's starting signal-caller. So Price called an impulse audible—a sneak back into an 11th-grade huddle—and put on a clinic. A story about his performance appeared in the next morning's paper and led to a recruiting pitch from Nevada. A similarly stellar showing at Washington later that summer occasioned a scholarship offer. Price committed within weeks; Shamburger, now a redshirt junior Huskies defensive back, followed his lead.
The ink was barely dry on Price's letter of intent before the peanut gallery started considering the even steeper adversities ahead, starting with the two figures he would challenge for the Huskies' starting job. Jake Locker, the school's eventual No. 2 alltime passing leader, had earned his legend; Nick (son of Joe) Montana, born to arguably the greatest quarterback who ever lived, seemed poised to inherit his. Montana's number 5 jersey was on sale in the team shop well before he took a game snap. No sooner had Price arrived in Seattle than people began asking him whether he planned on switching positions or transferring. "I knew that if I continued to develop the way I was going to develop, I had a chance of winning the spot," Price says. "So I just kept competing."
After taking a redshirt in 2009, he edged Montana for the '10 season backup job (Price had a 106.4 rating in eight appearances) and then last year beat out Montana again to become the starter. Soon Price was dusting Locker too—in the Huskies' record books, setting single-season marks for scoring passes (33), completion percentage (66.9) and pass efficiency (161.1). Just like that, the stopgap became the superstar. (Montana's transfer to Mt. San Antonio College in the spring closed the chapter.)
Most impressive: Price did most of his damage after spraining his right knee in the season opener against Eastern Washington, an injury that led to others in his legs and shoulder. A Huskies line that allowed the conference's second-most sacks (34) put Price at such risk that coach Steve Sarkisian held him out of practice some days. Pull him out of a game, though, and his competitive heat boils over. Price's stats against USC, an outing that ended after 2½ quarters because of knee injuries: minus-16 yards rushing, four sacks, one fumble and one kicked trash can. "The competitive nature, the fire that he brings is something that really has been unparalleled," says Sarkisian.
An off-season focus on ball security figures to help keep Price, an American ethnic studies major, burning late into games this season. But his assault on the record books won't mean much if his teammates, especially those among the new-look wideout corps, aren't taking some of the pressure off him. "That's the next goal for me, getting the guys around me to play at my level," Price says. It's incentive enough to keep him heading back to the huddle.